Jan Murphy | Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pa.)
It’s well established that radiation can be harmful. But is it possible that the release of information about radioactive material is dangerous as well?
That was an argument that the state Department of Environmental Protection made when it denied a request from an environmental group for recently collected information about radiation levels in and around oil and gas well sites in the Marcellus shale region, along with other related information.
But that view did not fly with the state’s Office of Open Records. The office on Friday ordered DEP to release the records initially requested by the Bucks County-based Delaware Riverkeeper Network and one of its research associates, Corinne Bell, in April.
The department collected samples and other information for a comprehensive study that Gov. Tom Corbett ordered last year to look at naturally occurring levels of radioactivity in by-products associated with oil and natural gas development.
That report will be made public when it is completed. The news release announcing the study indicated a 12 to 14 month timeline that led some to believe that it should have been done by now.
But department spokeswoman Lisa Kasianowitz said that 12 to 14 month period only accounted for the time the department needed to collect the samples. Now the results are being analyzed and then will be reviewed internally and by an outside consultant before the report is issued, which is expected to be later this year.
Because of the upsurge in drilling activity in the Marcellus shale region and the potential health and environmental risks that come with it, the network’s deputy director Tracy Carluccio said her organization has hired an outside expert to conduct a study of its own of the department’s sampling results and study about radioactivity in the environment caused by the drilling.
“It’s a huge issue,” she said. “It has substantial health – human health and environmental health – implications. We felt it was so important that people have the opportunity to hear from somebody outside of the agency that is permitting these activities.”
But the network’s effort to gain access to critical pieces of information to conduct its analysis was denied by the department.
DEP’s Kasianowitz said the department is reviewing the Office of Open Records’ decision and has not yet made a determination as to whether it will appeal it to Commonwealth Court.
In denying the records, DEP took the position that the public release of “preliminary unvalidated data, including sample locations,” could risk harm to the public’s health, pose a security risk if it falls into the wrong hands and lead to “erroneous and/or misleading characterizations of the levels and effects” of radioactive material.
It further argued that the samples it collected fall under the Right to Know Law’s exemption that allows noncriminal investigative records to be kept private.
But in the Office of Open Records’ appeals officer Jill Wolfe’s view, the department cedes that the information is public and will released once it has the chance to “validate” the data. Besides that, she said the investigative exemption doesn’t apply in this case because this Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material study by “the very name identifies it as a study” and not an investigation.
Further, she states the department incorrectly “attempts to equate the risk of radioactive material itself to the release of information about radioactive material.”
The department’s position is disturbing to Office of Open Records executive director Terry Mutchler. For one thing, she said, “As a practical matter, you are dealing with radiation levels in water. If that doesn’t rise to the level of something the public should know, I can’t think of much that would.”
What’s more, Mutchler said the department’s denial highlights “one of the biggest issues we see” in the application of the Right to Know Law and that is the misuse of the investigative exemption.
For the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the delay in the department’s release of information it requested – as well as the DEP study that the network believed based on the department’s news release would have been released by this past spring – is concerning. Not only does it hinder the network’s ability to perform its own study of the data, but Carluccio said “the sooner the public knows this information the better.”
“Every day, millions of gallons of wastewater are produced and we know that much of the wastewater contains high levels of radioactivity. We also know the gas itself has radioactive elements in it,” Carluccio said.
Pointing to her own research based on information from various federal government sources, she said there are indications that Marcellus shale contains higher levels of radioactivity than other shale being developed in the United States.
She said she hopes hidden motivations that go beyond the public’s interest are not behind the department’s delay.
Carluccio said, “We don’t want politics to get in the way of the timely release of this report. It’s certainly one that could be out and made public so the magnitude of the problem is understood.”
Kasianowitz said the department had no comment on the network’s suspicions.
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This article was written by Jan Murphy from The Patriot-News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.